Reconciliation for the Métis people and moving forward
One question I have been asked many times is, “So how much blood do you really have?” A simple enough question – or so it seems at first glance– but the question actually has no simple answer if you are a Métis.
As many of you probably know, there are three distinct classifications of indigenous people in Canada and North America. First Nations are people whose ancestors lived in North America, from coast to coast, but below the arctic territories. The Inuit occupied coastlines, and the islands of Canada’s far north. The Métis, however, are a little different. We are classified as those whose ancestors are of joined European and First Nation blood.
So when someone asks, “Well, how Aboriginal are you really?” there is not really an answer, other than that we are Métis. The problem being that for many, there is a falsely perceived line separating a true aboriginal from a colonial: somewhere hazily defined in your ancestral timeline. This notion is false, and it is ignorant. Métis do not share the exact same rights as other First Nations, but we are still a part of this country’s heritage.
The exact reasons for this social separation are rooted in the history of the Red River Colony rebellions of the late 19th century, and the eventual formation of the Manitoba Act in 1882, which dissolved the Métis government, and converted Métis land into what is now the province of Manitoba.
Obviously, as the Métis government was integrated into the bureaucratic system of colonial Canada, the people who occupied what were once Métis settlements and territories lost their voice. They also lost their right to lands and status which came with the forced dissolution of their aboriginal background. To counteract this, the Canadian government set aside scrip documents which entitled Métis people to $90-160 worth of land (land valued at $1/acre) for displaced peoples and future generations.
Unfortunately, many of these documents where either extorted by British and American settlers moving into the area, or simply lost in the process of sending them to Ottawa to be processed by the federal government (which was no easy task in the 19th century). Furthermore, as the price of land surged over the next ten years due to inflation from competitive resettling of the land by colonials, the scripts lost nearly all of their value by the 20th century.
Without any land, any voice, or even any contemporary rights offered to other aboriginals of the time, the Métis became the group we know today, one which isn’t really known to most Canadians at all.
But times are changing, and with them, so does the hope for the descendants of the Métis people.
In the past five years, two rulings by the Supreme Court of Canada in particular have been made that make me think that things are slowly getting better. Attempts at reconciliation are being made, albeit slowly, but the legal process is a notoriously tedious one.
The most recent ruling, in April 2016, ended a legal battle which was started by Métis activists in 1999, declaring that all non-status Indians and Métis are now under the jurisdiction of the federal government of Canada, a right afforded previously under section 91(24) of the 1867 Constitution Act to only status aboriginal peoples. The implications of this are tremendous, and in terms of reconciliation, it is a step in the right direction.
That being said, as of now, it doesn’t change much for the Métis: other than that it opens doors for us that were previously closed. We still are not classified as Status Indians under the Indian Act, nor are we governed by it. It doesn’t ensure anything, but it certainly gives us the chance now to form a standard for Métis all across Canada.
The other ruling, known as the Memorandum of Understanding, was signed on Friday, May 27th, 2016. The Memorandum brought, very simply, the possibility of the Métis people re-gaining lands which were lost to them when the Manitoba Act was signed. Negotiations between the federal government and members of the MMF (Manitoba Métis Federation) are now on the table of discussion in the Supreme Court, and things are looking good – so much so that Prime Minister Trudeau committed to settling the land claim in a letter written to the president of the MMF.
What exactly would a victory mean for the Métis? Will there be compensation in the form of money or cash for Métis people still holding script documents? The MMF website says the short answer is no. As lots of the land in Manitoba is now owned privately, there can’t exactly be a reclaiming of territories which once belonged to the Métis. Any deal made will be for “the collective benefit of the Manitoba Métis Community - not specific individuals."
To explain, expect lots of community support and social aid if you are a Métis, not the 160 acres your family may have once been entitled to. Expect a constructive aid to all the Métis, not the individual. But rest easy, knowing that our culture will never die. It’s stronger now than ever.